For many people, meetings are a regular part of their work, but meetings can also be helpful in keeping a family running smoothly. One of the most valuable parts of any meeting is the agenda. The agenda is a structured way of holding a meeting together and gives participants confidence that the meeting will not go on forever and that they know what is actually on the table to be talked about.
When working with a family in distress, I usually begin by asking each person to contribute to the agenda for the meeting. This sets the tone for giving each member a chance to talk and have input. This is helpful, especially in families where one person tends to over talk the others or when one or more of the members either don’t want to be there or are afraid what they say may be held against them later. Some people are more verbal in their communication style; others need some coaching in putting their thoughts and feelings into words. The goal is balance.
In setting an agenda, allowing each person to have their say without interruption can take a lot of practice for some families. Learning to tolerate silences while people are gathering their thoughts can be a new skill for a family whose normal conversation pattern has involved jumping in as soon as the speaker pauses to catch their breath and over talking one another. The first task in facilitating a family meeting is creating a safe environment. That can take some doing in families where there is a lot of volatility and a history of abuse and deep dysfunction. My sense of safe environment allows people to speak their minds and feelings openly, but has no tolerance for disrespect or hostility.
Establishing the ground rules for having a constructive meeting can sometimes take up most of the time in the first session and even beyond. The familiarity of family dysfunctional patterns can keep things from moving forward. Once the “rules of engagement” have been explained and accepted and an agenda has been set, the important work of more effective communication and problem solving has a chance to happen. The first step in any meeting, and especially in family meetings, is the call to order!